It takes more than 3 Dimensions to 3D Print End Products
Nowadays, it is no secret that 3D printing technologies have become the best asset in the colorful arsenal of every company involved in rapid prototyping. Additive manufacturing’s fast turnaround time, ridiculously low or next to nothing setup costs and the virtual elimination of waste material, make it stand on the top of the list of rapid prototyping tools and techniques.
But recent decreases in the per 3D-printed-object costs combined with a series of technological advances have made it an increasingly lucrative option for manufacturing real end products. These advances include the introduction of powder bed technology for 3D printing and the use of polymer and metal production ready materials.
3D printing not just for rapid prototyping?
Mass production via 3D printing is nothing new to well-known brands like Toyota, Külicke & Soffa, Israel Aircraft Industries, and UnderArmour. It is already part of their daily business as usual process.
Additive manufacturing with its inherent characteristics, once just a prominent technique in the rapid prototyping industry, is already changing the landscape of the whole manufacturing industry. It allows companies to manufacture anywhere, without the need of setup or tooling and at any time. Thus, eliminating a great deal of the supply chain and shorten the delivery line between the manufacturer and the end user. It also enables companies to minimize the interactions between designers and manufacturers, helping to further reduce costs, prevent misunderstandings and shorten lead-time. Another benefit of using additive techniques for the actual production is the ability to manufacture a particular product by a global network of 3D printing service providers to further minimalize shipping costs.
Using traditional rapid prototyping technology, every brand can become a manufacturer that designs, produces and supplies directly and on demand to the end user. This technique also eliminates the need for warehousing and the costs per item are the same, whether for one product or thousands.
Challenges on the way to 3D printing end products
This whole process of digital manufacturing is based on 3D printing a product from a 3D design file that normally comes in the form of a decades-old format named STL. This format holds only geometry information and other data like dimensions, materials, color and more are discarded altogether. It is also the only format that all 3D printers manage to understand.
Since the sent STL file to 3D printing services doesn’t incorporate any data regarding materials, part resolution or orientation, restrictions on the printing methods etc, designers are forced to attach other information in the form of a text, MS Word or Excel, PDF or picture file to the actual STL file.
Another (potentially dangerous) shortcoming of the STL file is that it is totally open and can be changed by a malicious user on its way to the 3D printing company. Also, the lack of any copyright protection on the file makes it an easy target in the age of industrial espionage.
To realize the potential of 3D printing not only in the rapid prototyping industry but also for end product manufacturing, the industry needs to address these shortcomings in an adequate way. There is an increasing need for a file format that enables brands to wrap their 3D data in some sort of metadata that determines the specifics about a particular order for 3D printing. This file should also incorporate digital copyright signatures of brands or designers that make them a tougher target for intellectual property theft. Another feature that such a file should entail is a sort of mechanism to limit the number of items that can be 3D printed with a particular file. With prominent cyber security breaches every day, it is imperative to take up every possible measure to alleviate possible security concerns.
While the traffic of 3D data files from designer to manufacturers has surpassed the one million files per day barrier, the industry’s inability to come up with a proper solution to this dilemma costs a lot and leads to much discontent among the triangle of designer, manufacturer, and customer.
To enable the 3D printing technology to show its full potential, a workflow is necessary that ensures the integrity of each 3D design file in the process. To guarantee the delivery of a product according to its specifications, a secure tracking system is required that reflects every aspect of the product from design to production.
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